Mayor Elorza backs investigatory power for police oversight board. Sort of.

Photo by Dan McGowan/WPRI 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Despite opposition from Providence’s top two public safety officials, Mayor Jorge Elorza is supporting the oversight powers of a soon-to-be-appointed police review panel.

However, the first-term Democrat is not ruling out the possibility that he’ll support changes to the Providence External Review Authority (PERA), a long-dormant volunteer board that has investigatory authority – including subpoena power – over the police and will soon be revived by city leaders.

“The mayor supports investigatory authority for PERA so long as it does not undermine or interfere with public safety’s ability to investigate matters,” Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Elorza, wrote in an email statement.

PERA was established by city ordinance in 2002, although it has been inactive for more than 10 years. But the nine-member board – plus its staff – is a key part of a new police reform ordinance known as the Providence Community-Police Relations Act (PCPRA) set to take effect Jan. 1. PERA will be tasked with holding police accountable when it comes to following the new law.

Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and Police Chief Col. Hugh Clements have each raised concerns about PERA’s existing investigatory powers, arguing that the board could hinder their own reviews of police misconduct.

“I am asking that the ordinance be practical and useful, and with investigatory powers it doesn’t make sense and will be problematic,” Pare said earlier this month. “This ordinance hasn’t worked in over a decade and without changes to address the investigatory powers, it will be the same results as in the past.”

“The issue is the parallel and sequential investigations,” Clements said on Friday. “It’s going to be problematic.”

Elorza’s office has largely avoided answering direct questions about PERA’s powers, except to say the mayor believes civilian oversight is “one of the most important elements” of the PCPRA. When pressed specifically on investigatory authority for PERA, Crowell said the mayor supports it.

When asked if the mayor’s statement means he won’t seek any changes to the existing ordinance, Crowell said “no.”

Crowell also said the mayor has put forth his one-and-only nominee to serve on PERA’s board: attorney Michael Fontaine. The City Council appoints the other eight members, but acting Council President Sabina Matos said Friday her nominees have not been finalized. Matos has also said she supports PERA having investigatory powers.

PERA’s investigatory authority has already been upheld in court. In 2006, after the city’s police union filed a lawsuit, a Superior Court judge ruled that the board did not conflict with a state law known as the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights. The state Supreme Court later sided with PERA as well.

Aside from the ability to investigate complaints related to violations of the PCPRA, PERA will also have the power to review and make recommendations on union contracts and decide whether certain individuals should be removed from the police department’s gang database.

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan